As the 2020/21 NBA campaign enters its postseason, the candidates for the six seasonal awards are now released.
Expected to be announced throughout TNT’s coverage of the first round of the playoffs this week, the finalists for each of the awards are voted from a global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters, and one of the gongs up for grabs is the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) award.
DPOY Rankings 2021
Two of the previous four winners enter the race once again while last year’s recipient Giannis Antetokounmpo misses out on the top three ballot this time around.
Despite two candidates being nominated and entering the postseason as top seeds, winning such an award is not necessarily an indication of title success (only four previous DPOY’s went onto win the Larry O’Brien trophy that same season).
2017 winner of the award Draymond Green makes up the remainder as the final nominee of the 2021 class, ironically the last player to win the chip the same year as being voted DPOY.
With every nominee’s defensive acumen well renowned yet unique, here is a look at why each is in the conversation for the much-coveted title of being the best in the league without the ball.
Honourable mention – Bam Adebayo
The only Miami Heat player to ever pick up DPOY was Alonzo Mourning, winning the title back to back in the 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons. Unfortunately for Bam Adebayo, the young center in South Beach won’t be bucking the trend this year.
That’s not to say Adebayo would be undeserving of any praise in what is becoming a two-horse race between Ben Simmons and Rudy Gobert for this season’s edition of DPOY.
In 2020, only his third season in the NBA, Adebayo booked his place in the All-Defensive Second Team and even received two first-place votes for the Defensive Player of the Year award, losing out to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The 23-year-old, fast becoming one of the league’s brightest young big men, has garnered praise for being somewhat of a hybrid between the two aforementioned favourites. In the Heat’s campaign for their guy’s shot at the award, a key stat mentioned was Adebayo being the only defender with over 300 plays of switching and dropping, limiting opponents to 0.94 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum. Such versatility to guard through five positions demonstrates his lockdown ability on the perimeter and in the paint.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra couldn’t speak highly enough of his young star back in April:
“He can legit guard one through five and that’s not just coach speak, that’s not fan speak, media speak. That’s legit.”
He is sixth in defensive plus/minus and tenth in defensive win shares in the whole NBA, and is one of just twelve players in the NBA right now averaging at least 1.0 steals and blocks per game.
“He can anchor a very reliable defense and he can take on different challenges and he has the IQ to be able to execute multiple schemes where it’s not just the switching scheme that people think that he’s involved with. He’s able to handle more sophisticated things than just that.”
Adebayo too couldn’t help himself when speaking to Dwayne Wade of TNT, simply stating, “I do everything on defense.”
"I do everything on defense."
Bam wants some respect put on his name in the DPOY race 👀pic.twitter.com/93dfAZAzMv
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 12, 2021
Adebayo’s on-off court differential is the greatest amongst his peers for his club, with the Heat’s net differential 22.7 better off according to NBA.com Stats.
Should Miami’s campaign trail have been successful and the New Jersey native won DPOY, a $16 million rise in Adebayo’s five-year, $163 million contract extension would have been awarded to the center.
Alongside the Lakers, Adebayo’s club faced the most protracted of all seasons last campaign and looked to have been suffering the effects of such, only then breaking into the play off spots in late February for the first time.
The historical preference of choosing players on high performing sides may have held influence on Adebayo’s exclusion.
Adebayo’s reaction to his exclusion from the selection of the final three in DPOY speaks volumes of his warranted frustration.
— 13am Adebayo💥 (@Bam1of1) May 21, 2021
It seems almost inevitable that the award will fall into Adebayo’s hands soon enough, just not this year.
While maybe not at his peak, Draymond Green is still in the conversation for being the league’s best defender. The 2017 DPOY’s ability to guard at the perimeter and take on the league’s bigs while at just 6 foot 6 is already well established.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Green and the Warriors’ campaign, who finished as the league’s fifth-best regular season defense according to NBA.com, is that they have done it without number two pick James Wiseman for just under half of their games (Wiseman played in 39 games before a meniscus injury prematurely ended his rookie season).
With Green as their small-ball anchor, Golden State have ranked in the top five defensive teams in the league for the first time since the 31-year-old picked up his DPOY award four seasons ago, doing so with no other player considered for All-Defensive teams before.
The Warriors’ defense has the third best defended field goal percentage in the league with 45.1%, according to NBA.com Stats.
The nine-year vet has given typical no-nonsense replies to questions posed about his DPOY credentials.
After his Warriors’ upset of Rudy Gobert’s Utah Jazz in the final games of the regular season, the power forward looked bemused at the suggestion of anyone but himself winning the accolade:
Who does Draymond Green think should be Defensive Player of the Year? pic.twitter.com/hZzK12hdap
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 11, 2021
The Athletic’s Sam Amick interviewed Green recently, with the latter commenting on his style and chances of winning DPOY:
“One thing I am certain of is that I can f— up an entire team’s offense. And so, when you look at the impact that I have on the defensive side of the ball, it’s not always going to show up in blocked shots. It’s not always going to show up in steals.
“But I guarantee you it shows up in your favourite-player-who-I-may-be-playing-against’s mind. It shows up in what they’re able to do, as opposed to what they’re trying to get to.
“I think being able to control the game on the defensive side of the ball [is key] when you start talking Defensive Player of the Year.”
Personally for Green, it has been a campaign to shout about. While his playing style is not always quantifiable in concise and readable stats, a few jump out to cement his place in the discussion for DPOY.
Green just missed out on the exclusive 1.0 blocks and steals per game club that the likes of Adebayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo gained entry to, with the former averaging 0.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per game according to Basketball Reference.
Ever the general, he also leads the league as the best rim protector with a minimum 200 shots at the rim faced, notching an impressive 47.3%, all the while sitting atop of the league in fewest points per possession with 0.46 according to NBA.com Stats.
He has become the first NBA player to have more rebounds and assists than points in a season (444 points, 558 assists and 449 rebounds) according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“To me, this has been one of his best seasons,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr commented after the recent Jazz win.
“I know he’s been an All-Star, and Defensive Player of the Year, and all that. But given our team and Draymond’s position with the team, the talent that we’ve lost over the years, to me this is one of the best seasons of Draymond’s career.”
The word that would immediately come to mind when Ben Simmons is mentioned is probably versatility.
The Australian-born guard-come-big man is the best in the business when asked to guard one through to five, in a league where defensive flexibility is at a premium. Simmons is often assigned to the opponent’s formidable star players, ranging from some of the league’s best scorers in James Harden all the way to dominant forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Simmons would be the first Sixer since Dikembe Mutombo to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, who won his fourth and final award exactly twenty years ago.
The satisfying chasm between Simmons and other DPOY favourite in Rudy Gobert is the difference in styles between the two players, each with their own respective credible yet differing acumen that has earned their names being thrown into the hat.
While being a top ten perimeter defender, Simmons’ lack of time in the paint lowers rebounding numbers for example in comparisons and perhaps disparages perceptions of him in the eyes of DPOY voters. But it’s his on-ball pestering beyond the three point line that initiates offense.
Recording 1.6 steals and 3.5 deflections per game this year has led to Philly being the third best team in regards to fastbreak points.
In general defensive metrics, Simmons boasts a 106 defensive rating, limits opponent three point percentage to 33% and ranks fourth in defensive win shares in players having played 50 or over games,
“You don’t see me campaigning and I’m not going to, but I’m just gonna say it again, there’s not a better defender in this league.”
In so many words, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers did indeed give a ringing endorsement of his player for the award, but it may be the other personnel on his squad that may cloud judgement in the eyes of voters.
While Simmons’ exploits have aided in the 76ers’ rise to second best regular season defense in the NBA, the question posed is whether it would have been attainable without the likes of Joel Embiid and Matisse Thybulle.
A vote for Simmons would be a vote against the grain, with only one point guard ever winning the award (Gary Payton in 1996).
Where it may have been more challenging to accurately and numerically pinpoint impact in the previous two candidates, Rudy Gobert suffers no such issues.
The ‘Stifle Tower’ has a monopoly on many individual defensive stats in the league, none other than the defensive rating of players averaging over 30 minutes per game (100.9) defensive real plus minus (leading for second consecutive season with 8, nearest competitor Clint Capela is 4.98) and defensive rebounds (10.1). Gobert is second only to teammate Mike Conley in the league’s defensive win shares, just 0.003 shy of Conley’s 0.184.
Gobert, with his two DPOY titles under his belt, is one of ten players, past and present, to win multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Gobert’s dominance in the paint passes the eye test and enables teammates to track their man, safe in the knowledge that their five is anchoring the defense and quite literally sweeps away any stray drives to the rim with his 7-foot-9 wingspan.
Such intimidation while also running the floor in transition is quite succinctly summarised in the below video against San Antonio that went viral, with Gobert’s self-satisfied grin capping off a basketball defensive masterclass.
Your quick version of Rudy turning back 3 Spurs in the 1st quarter, then nodding to tell them "That's right!" pic.twitter.com/CZOPJczRdg
— Ken Clayton (@k_clayt) May 4, 2021
Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of the play: “His ability to make multiple plays I think is unique, really for any player, but particularly for a center.”
In the regular season, the Jazz ranked third in points allowed per 100 possessions (107.5), fourth in points scored per 100 (116.5), the biggest gap in the league of 9. With Gobert’s defensive rating of 100.9, his team better the top ranked Lakers by allowing 3 fewer points per 100 possessions. Without Gobert on the hardwood, however, the Jazz’s defense plummets to the one of the worst in the league with the aforementioned 8 defensive plus minus.
Despite Simmons’ career high 42-point haul in Salt Lake City earlier on this year, Gobert held the guard to 3/7 shooting from the field and forced three turnovers.
When considering this in the DPOY conversation, the Frenchman has also played in all but one game this season, 13 more than nearest competitor Simmons. As much as this isn’t affecting each player’s defense, prolonged absences from the court are not seen favourably amongst those of voting influence (see Joel Embiid in the MVP race).
Embiid’s game is much more of a cross-reference point for Gobert’s playing style, naturally as big centers. But the fact that Simmons plays alongside another All-Defense caliber player on his squad unequivocally lessens his case, whereas Gobert’s side is built around his talents. Simmons’ real defensive plus minus is ranked 31st in the NBA, according to Basketball Reference.
Even looking beyond box score stats, there can only be one Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.